Awake by Design – Awake by Design Review

Progressive power metal is a challenging genre to really nail. If you go too light, it feels insubstantial and sugary. Go too heavy on the prog and tech aspects and you lose accessibility. U.K.s Awake by Design have been refining and developing their sound since 2009, and on their self-titled third album they treat you to an hour and 17 minutes of melodic prog-power with nods to Kamelot and Pyramaze. Talent abounds and the band’s technical skills are immediately apparent. They also demonstrate a consistent ability to craft accessible, memorable material with emotional payoff. This isn’t a perfect album by any means, but it’s definitely good enough to make me wonder why I never heard of the band before and why they aren’t signed to a label. Mystery is in the air!

Shockingly intro free, Awake by Design kicks off very well with “The Coming Tide,” showcasing a polished, glossy and mature sound very much like modern Kamelot. Adrian Powell has a smooth, appealing voice and delivers his lines with confidence and power, never oversinging or getting overly dramatic. The song is slick, loaded with interesting guitar work and hooks, and better still, it’s only 4 minutes long and ends before you realize it. That’s almost unheard of in prog-power circles! Things transition easily to the very memorable “Devoid of illusion” where the band plays to their strengths, delivering catchy moments using a regal, refined prog-power template. You’ll remember the chorus after one listen and it’s the kind of tune Kamelot should write more of.  What the band does exceedingly well is maintain an air of forlorn melancholia even as the music becomes more upbeat and buoyant. This is moody, downcast music, at times quite similar to Shadow Gallery’s best moments, and it isn’t designed to get you moving and shaking.

Much of the album sticks in mid-tempo mode, with tracks like “This Avalanche” and “Tears for the Fall” preferring dark, sullen moods over vibrant aggression and urgency. By the time the album reaches its midpoint, things do begin to feel a bit too restrained and one-note as song after song is painted using the same palette of grey colors and depressive emotion set to the same pacing. It isn’t until the 10th track “As Strangers Divide” that things finally kick into that next gear, getting speedy and aggressive, which at that point feels like a long awaited release. Sadly, the release is short-lived as the band can’t even keep the momentum going within this one song and soon drops back into sadboi mid-tempo introspection and rumination. This is the big flaw in the Awake by Design matrix. At 77 minutes, there’s maybe 5-7 minutes of upbeat material scattered across the album, and that’s just not enough variety for me. All the songs are good and some are very good, even the nearly 11-minute closer, “Empire,” but they’re all so morose and restrained it makes you go batshit wonky bonkers after a time.

Musically the band is tight and highly proficient. There’s no shortage of impressive guitar-work courtesy of Toby Stewart and Luke Smith, there’s tasteful playing everywhere and some of the solos practically ooze emotion. Even the keyboards are handled with grace and nuance, which is a big win, and Dave Favill’s bass is present and accounted for well. Adrian Powell is a very solid vocalist and knows how to craft vocal hooks. He doesn’t try to blow your doors off with high register hysterics and generally emulates the steady gravitas of Roy Khan. His smooth delivery is a big asset and keeps you tuned in even when things feel too down in the dumps and laid back.

Awake by Design is a tough album to score. I like all the songs, there are no filler tracks or bad ideas present, but the combination of the length, monochromatic mood and pacing puts a hitch in the platter’s giddy-up. I wish there was more dynamic material to spice up the gloom and think this is too somnambulist for regular listens, but I’m left impressed by the band nonetheless. Awake by Design have the tools to compete in the prog-power scene, they just need to use something besides the sad hammer next time.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 192 kbps mp3
Label: Self-Release
Websites: | |
Releases Worldwide: August 14th, 2020

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